Thursday, March 31, 2011

What's for Lunch: Taco Salad

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Kids pretty much love Mexican food these days so it didn't take much to convince them to eat this "taco salad." But you probably noticed that the chips in this case are not the "baked whole grain tortilla shells" Chartwells advertised on its website, but rather toasted whole wheat pita chips.

In fact, I liked the pita chips and the kids for the most part seemed to like them as well.

This was the preferred method of eating this meal: using the spork to spoon the ground turkey meat onto the chip. (That's me, as captured by my daughter. The kids did not eat the lettuce.)

According to the Chartwells website, there was supposed to be a choice of turkey meat or "southwest beans," but I didn't see any beans. Instead, kids were given this "Tex Mex corn," which was frozen corn mixed with canned salsa.

As my daughter observed, the corn was a bit on the cold side. But I'm not sure any of the kids in the lunchroom noticed, because I did not see them eating the corn at all. Mostly it went into the trash can untouched, as you see here.

Really, it can't be repeated often enough: if you're going to introduce new foods to kids, you really need to work with them to get them to eat it. Otherwise, it just gets trashed.

D.C. Public Schools serve some 36,000 lunches every day. Imagine all the corn that got thrown away.

Lunch from Home: Vegetable Dumplings

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Daughter has a new compartmentalized insert for her lunch box, and used it to pack one of her favorites: dumplings.

On a recent trip to Charlottesville, Va., we stopped on the way home at a huge Korean supermarket in Fairfax County. We have several Korean markets in the Washington area, but the "Super H" is by far the most spectacular, almost the size of a Walmart with food courts, a stupendous produce selection, a mile-long seafood display and aisle after aisle of Asian products you've never seen before.

The freezer aisle boasts every imaginable kind of Asian dumpling and we stock up. They are quick to heat and pack for lunch. And while I can't guarantee the ingredients would pass the food police, they beat the heck out of a lot of the other junk kids crave.

One word of caution: best not to spread that soy sauce around so liberally. It can cause quite a mess.

As you can see, daughter also selected a package of what turned out to be animal crackers. The script describing the contents is, for us, completely indecipherable. She also packed some cheese curls and chocolate treats from a gourmet shop in Charlottesville, gifted to us in exchange for me participating on a panel discussion following a screening of the film Lunch Line.

Thanks to the organizers for making that trip possible.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Lunch Ladies Tell USDA to Stuff New Meal Guidelines

Scraping spinach off spinach lasagna

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

The School Nutrition Association, representing some 53,000 of the nation's cafeteria professionals, has told the USDA it objects to nearly every aspect of proposed meal guidelines that call for bigger helpings of fruits and vegetables, more whole grains, fewer French fries, and less salt.

Food policy advocates--including first lady Michelle Obama--have hailed the guidelines as a giant step forward toward healthier school meals. But lunch ladies complain the federal government is sticking them with a bill they can't afford, that the rules in some cases may be impossible to implement, and that kids may not eat the improved cafeteria fare the government is proposing. The SNA says key provisions of the guidelines should be delayed, softened or abandoned altogether.

The SNA's formal comments, submitted to the USDA this week, point up the huge disconnect that sometimes exists between policy makers and those who work on the front lines of the school food controversy. For instance, Congress in its recent re-authorization of the school lunch program increased funding by just six cents per lunch. The USDA now estimates that the proposed meal guidelines will require 15 cents more for lunch and 51 cents more for breakfast.

Congress did not allocate any extra money for breakfast. The SNA suggests the new breakfast standards "be delayed until additional funding is available to help offset costs."

In a letter to the USDA, SNA President Nancy Rice says the proposed guidelines are simply too ambitious, and put too much pressure on schools to solve an obesity problem that is also the responsibility of parents and the food industry.

"SNA members do have concerns regarding their ability to meet the requirements of theproposed rule, especially as the impacts of the regulations are theoretical at this point, having never been piloted or studied...."

The SNA predicts rural areas and states such as Alaska will be hard-pressed to meet requirements for bigger servings of green and orange vegetables in school lunches, and that price fluctuations and seasonality could prevent schools from complying with the standard. The USDA should "encourage rather than require" the proposed vegetable selections, according to the SNA.

Along similar lines, school nutritionists object to a proposal that would limit serving potatoes and other "starchy vegetables" such as corn, peas and lima beans to just one cup per week, saying the rule "hampers school efforts to offer locally grown vegetables throughout the fall and winter, as well as regionally preferred foods such as corn in Mexican dishes."

French fries--a kid favorite--are almost always baked these days, not fried, the SNA points out.

The USDA guidelines would require that all grain products served in schools qualify as "whole grain-rich" within two years. But the SNA argues that such products are not widely available, and recommends delaying the requirement until the 2013-2014 school year.

Reducing sodium in meals by 50 percent within 10 years, as the guidelines require, may be impossible, the SNA says. Americans get most of their excess sodium from prepared foods. Even the USDA has said it isn't sure how the target would be reached, except through "innovation" not yet determined. The SNA says the government should at least make allowances for sodium that occurs naturally in foods such as milk and meat.

Finally, food service directors are concerned that requiring the healthier foods as outlined in the proposed guidelines will cause many students to drop out of the school lunch program. The guidelines would load up on foods kids traditionally don't like, and restrict menu items that are acknowledged favorites.

In fact, research sponsored by the USDA has projected that adopting a range of healthier options would result in a 5 percent reduction in participation at the elementary school level and an even greater dropout rate--12 percent--in secondary schools.

Here in the District of Columbia, school officials have undertaken a major menu overhaul, replacing processed convenience foods with freshly cooked vegetables, whole grains and even some scratch-cooked entrees like spinach lasagna. From what I see visiting the cafeteria at my daughter's elementary school, much of the improved food ends up in the trash. Frequently, the kids won't touch it.

School food service directors also object to a provision of the meals re-authorization that would require schools to start charging more for lunch. According the SNA, the move will almost certainly turn away children who pay full price.

Agriculture Sec. Tom Vilsack recently told several hundred SNA members gathered in Washington that he sympathizes with their dilemma. “I understand what happens when someone wants to impose on you a set ofrequirements that just don’t fit in the real world," he said.

The public comment period for the proposed meal guidelines ends April 13. Permanent guidelines could be in place as early as fall 2012.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

What's for Lunch: Cheeseburger or Ham & Cheese?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

You definitely needed two packets of ketchup for this lunch--one for the burger and one for the potato wedges. Most of the kids dove straight into the potatoes. They're not fries, exactly, but they look enough like fries to make them irresistible.

Wouldn't you know it, the USDA is proposing to tightly restrict fries and all other kinds of potatoes in school meals, as well as other "starchy vegetables" such as corn, peas and lima beans. Instead, schools would have to serve bigger portions of green and orange vegetables. In other words, the governments wants schools to serve more foods that kids don't like, and cut back on the food kids really love.

This is the formula for making school food healthier. The question is how we go about convincing kids they should eat it. I really wanted to taste the burger, but by the time the last kid had gone through the food line all the burgers were gone. Here's was was left: the alternated ham and cheese sandwich.

In fact, it was pretty good, the ham being "turkey ham" spread on toasted whole wheat bread. Okay, it was a little stale. But still....Carrots sticks with ranch dressing came on the side, and the lunch ladies tossed in some potato wedges to finish things off.

Monday, March 28, 2011

What's for Lunch: Uneaten Chicken Fajitas

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

This meal was a great disappointment to me, and not because the food wasn't good. I was just baffled that the kids showed so little interest in eating it.

As you can see, the large, whole wheat tortilla was filled with strips of seasoned chicken. These arrive at the school frozen. It's no trouble reheating them in the commercial steamer. But apparently, most of the kids thought the tortilla and the chicken inside were "nasty."

As best I could tell, only a couple of them in the entire lunchroom were actually picking the tortilla up and eating it. A few nibbled around the edges. Otherwise, they just left it on the tray untouched.
As frequently occurs, the kids have absolutely no idea what to do with the condiments on the side--in this case the lettuce, the chopped tomato and the grated cheddar cheese. At my table, I demonstrated how these were supposed to be piled on top of the chicken inside the tortilla. Looks lovely, no?

The refried beans--out of a can--weren't any better than they look. They were merely edible. Otherwise, I thought this was a terrific meal that mostly went into the trash.

Friday, March 25, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Oatmeal with Peaches

Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook
Here's a pretty simple breakfast that combines grain and fruit. Instead of serving the peaches in a plastic cup on the side, the canned fruit is mixed right in with the oatmeal.
These are regular Quaker quick oats, pretty simple to make, but I've seen horrible results in the past. At the school my daughter attended last year, the kitchen seemed incapable of getting the oatmeal right. It landed on the tray like a baseball, all dry and clumped together into a ball.
My daughter is so picky, she'd never even try oatmeal like this. But I did, and I thought it was pretty good--lots better thant the sugary branded cereals the kids were getting last year. There's enough sugar in that container of Stonyfield yogurt, and in the fruit juice.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

What's for Lunch: Tamale Pie

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

When I saw this "tamale pie" advertised on the Chartwells menu site I thought my daughter would love it. But I was wrong. She wouldn't have anything to do with it and brought lunch from home.
In the cafeteria, I was anxious to try it. It reminds me a little of the deep-dish vegetarian enchilada they were serving at the schools in Boulder when I was there. This "pie" is like a chili--ground beef, pinto beans, diced tomato, onion and cumin--at the bottom of a hotel pan topped with corn bread mix.
In fact, the corn bread mix was a bit sweet--just like the corn bread muffins they serve in the morning. I think I would have left the sugar out.
Still, I wolfed it down and was surprised--yes, actually surprised--that the kids around me weren't doing likewise. I got up and took a stroll around the lunchroom and saw that most of the kids hadn't touched the tamale pie at all, nor the "cilantro lime rice" that was served with it.

When I asked why they weren't eating it, they just shrugged. "It looks gross," one girl offered. "I don't like beans."
Hard to figure. Most of them just ate the apple sauce. It made me wonder, Do the kids ever get hungry when they refuse to eat the lunch?

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

What's for Lunch: Salad Alternate

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

D.C. schools could sure use salad bars. What kids see now are these mixed salads served as an alternative to the main entree. Often they come with slices of chicken breast. This is a pretty fine looking salad, don't you think? Lots of fresh romaine lettuce in there.

Not many of the kids choose the salad. But some do. "I just like salad," one girl told me. The teachers, who don't typically eat from the cafeteria line, are sometimes tempted by the salads as well. "For $1.50, it's a great buy!" said one.

Enjoy the low price. Under a provision of Congress' recent re-authorization of the school lunch program, prices will start going up soon to at least cover the cost of making the meals.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Lunch from Home: Lunchables Nachos

Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Here's another Luncahbles that's sure to draw a crowd: chips with salsa and cheese dip. It's regular party food, no? And you get a pouch of fruit punch to wash it down.

When the other kids at the table see these, they literally stop whatever else they might be eating and stare, waiting for an invitating to join in. When the owner of the Lunchables gives the green light, look how the other kids swarm around. This could be happy hour, except it's lunch.

Unfortunately, there weren't enough chips to finish the cheese. But apparently that's what fingers are for.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Families Turn Out for a School Garden Raising

New garden in the making at Stoddert Elementary

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Months of planning resulted in a new garden at my daughter's elementary school Saturday as parents, teachers and kids all pitched in to dig beds, haul compost and spread wood chips.

The masterminds behind construction of the Stoddert Elmentary School garden in Glover Park are two women who live in the neighborhood--Lauren Biel and Sarah Bernardi--who just happen to be passionate about school gardens. Unlike most of us who simply support the idea of school gardens, they actually did something about it, forming a non-profit--D.C. Greens--that operates a farmers market nearby on Wisconsin Avenue precisely to generate funds they can use in their gardening efforts.

Removing clay for blueberries

The site for the garden lies between the school and a new sports field. There's a big tree to offer some shade, a neat little wooden tool shed donated by Home Depot, and an old-fashioned split-rail fence that gives the place a country feel. Biel and Bernardi have been busy lining up sponsors as well as expertise to get the garden in shape. Whole Foods donated a lunch of hot dogs, cole slaw and macaroni salad.

My job was to help dig a bed for blueberries. I quickly discovered that my spade shovel was of little use trying to dig into solid clay. I walked to the hardware store and purchased a five-pound mattock. At one point there were at least eight of us toiling away on this bed, tossing clay to the side and removing stones.

The Slow Cook swings his mattock

You may recognize Sarah Bernardi--she was the art instructor at Bancroft Elementary School who was deeply involved in the garden program that Michelle Obama adopted. Sarah wrote a guest post here describing how difficult it was for teachers to maintain gardens like the one at Bancroft. You may not be surprised to learn that she's left teaching to work in gardening full time. But rather than me telling it, I'll let you read what Sarah sent to me in an e-mail last week:

Teaching was wearing me out! I'm wrinkled and grey haired and I haven't even had kids yet!

I'd been wanting to move out of the classroom for a few years. I began moving away from teaching art and more and more into the garden, which is where my personal interests lay. What I always loved about my job as an art teacher was that it forced me to constantly learn new processes and methods and allowed me to be really creative and 'make stuff'. I realized I can take both of these things with me out to the garden, which is a place - unlike the classroom - that also makes me feel at ease and allows me to be completely present (two things I struggle with!) And that's what I really want to impart on the kids, how gardening can do all of these things, all the while it's teaching you how to eat and how to live.

I've been working with DC Farm to School and DC Greens since leaving teaching and have been really focusing on the Stoddert Garden project. I remain involved with the garden program at Bancroft and am working on the committee there to structure the program for their newly designed garden. I've just begun working at the Farm at Walker Jones, which I'm thrilled about, as it is a perfect marriage of my passion to Farm to School programming and interest in school garden program design.

Lauren Biel founded DC Greens to create a farmers market for the neighborhood that would channel profits back into the community in the form of school garden programs. The seed for the Stoddert garden was planted two years ago when the school was undergoing modernization. Lauren and I connected with a couple of parents, Julie Schneider and Ginger Jacobs, who also loved gardening wanted to include a garden in the plans for modernization. They worked very hard to make that happen and were able to have a very large space (4,000 square feet) earmarked for the garden.

Last year we surveyed the teachers to get their input and developed a plan for the space based on this. DC Greens is fully funding the project using proceeds from last season's market, a Building Healthy Communities grant from Home Depot and a 5% day from Whole Foods. This is allowing many projects that have been started to actually move forward. For example, a first grade class built a green house out of recycled bottles with the help a local architecture firm and it will be finished and installed next week. Mr. Dingledine, a fourth grade teacher, has been developing a relationship with the Monarch Sister Schools program and their chief botanist Christopher Puttock, has created a beautiful butterfly garden design that now has the funding to move it forward. it will be planted at the end of April. We've got Andy Lynch, a colleague of 'Stickwork' artist Patrick Dougherty, ( coming for a week to install a 'Stickwork' entrance designed by Patrick and made from maple branches. He will be assisted daily by local artists and sculpture students, providing a great opportunity for these artists.

We've really tried to thoughtfully consider all of the challenges school gardens face in the planning process and tried to set up a a system that will addresses them. We have a set of about 10 teachers, each adopting a section of the garden for the year. Two teachers will serve as the in school coordinators and will run an after school garden club funded by the PTA. The school is blessed with a strong level of parental and community involvement and I have a long list of volunteers wanting to help with summer maintenance. Whole Foods and the Glover Park Hardware store have adopted the garden and are supporting it long term with in kind donations. DC Greens will continue to structure an support the program, provide professional development for teachers and take care of the details that usually bog teachers down and contribute to the decline of school gardens.

As we know, without a dedicated staff person assigned to oversee and teach in the garden, creating an integrated program remains a challenge. We have not chosen a set curriculum to use but will be setting up a section in the library containing a few of out favorite curriculum guides and books to use in their classrooms. We are anxiously awaiting local curriculum (available for purchase soon!) from City Blossoms and The Washington Youth Garden and hope to provide that for teachers to use that next year.

Building raised beds from kits

You can follow events at the Stoddert Garden at the new blog here. And here are some more pictures of yesterday's garden raising.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Chicago recently became the latest big school district to embrace universally free breakfast in the classroom, stirring the usual objections from some parents that it will cut into classroom instruction. One group got 1,100 parents to sign a petition protesting the move.

"Instructional time is so important to us," one parent told the Chicago Tribune. "And the federal and state standards that have been imposed on our school leave very little wiggle room for extra things."

The same complaints were heard here in the District of Columbia last year when the public schools implemented breakfast in the classroom in all schools where at least 40 percent of the students qualify for free or reduced-price meals. Other schools were allowed to choose whether to offer breakfast only in the cafeteria.

Serving breakfast in the classroom dramatically increases the number of needy children who eat in the morning, from as few as 20 percent to close to 100 percent. In a 2001 U.S. Department of Agriculture pilot program in 79 schools, offering free breakfast to all kids in the cafeteria increased the number of students who ate breakfast in school from 19 percent to 28 percent. At schools that served free breakfast in the classroom, participation rose to 65 percent.

In the schools I've visited, lost instruction time has proved not to be a problem. Instead, children are more attentive and the family atmosphere that food creates leads to a more productive learning environment. Some schools start the day earlier to accommodate breakfast. Teachers have found creative ways to involve breakfast in their lesson plans.

Remarkably, school officials typically report that breakfast in the classroom results in less tardiness and fewer visits to the school nurse. It's also been linked with better academic performance. Serving breakfast free to all kids in the classroom eliminates the stigma of standing in line in the cafeteria for a free meal.

And for schools with large populations of low-income students, breakfast in the classroom can generate a bounty of federal reimbursement dollars to help the meals program improve food quality overall.

Some schools are funding breakfast in the classroom on their own, spending cash up front on things like insulated tote bags or wagons to deliver food to the classroom. Others are getting an assist from the Walmart Foundation, which has pledged $3 million in seed money.

Here are several short videos that describe how breakfast in the classroom works, as reported by school administrators, teachers, parents and kids.


So what if childhood obesity weren't about kids eating too much and exercising too little, but about the kinds of foods they eat: like all those sugary sodas and starchy potato chips, for instance?

That's precisely the argument that science writer Gary Taubes makes. Taubes famously published a book--Good Calories, Bad Calories--debunking much of current nutrition thinking and placing the blame for the current obesity epidemic on insulin--the fat storage hormone--and carbohydrate-rich foods that promote insulin production in the body.

Writing in Slate, Taubes says current efforts to stem the childhood obesity crisis with the message that most foods are okay eaten in moderation, and with proper exercise, are doomed to fail. He suggests we need a national conversation about insulin, and that policy makers and leaders such as Michelle Obama should condemn foods like sodas, fruit juices and starchy convenience foods.

In fact, the USDA's proposed new school meal guidelines cut way back on starchy vegetables such as potatoes, and also make it more difficult to substitute juice for whole fruit. Still, school meals are heavily tilted toward carbs.


On the subject of sugar and obesity, here's some interesting work being done in British Columbia where medical doctors have identified sodas as a dietary marker for kids with weight problems.

Dr. Daniel Metzger, a pediatric endocrinologist at B.C. Children’s Hospital, says sugary beverages are probably the worst culprits in the obesity epidemic because they are consumed so fast and so plentifully.

“We can consume a lot of liquid carbs and not feel satiated,” he says. “Fructose [in sugar and in high-fructose corn syrup] is a particularly bad player because it doesn’t set off any fullness alarms and it is also bad for the heart.”

British Columbia obesity researcher Dr. Michael Lyon agrees agrees that added sugar — especially in the form of liquid candy — is a major factor in the rising rates of obesity, especially in children.

“Sugar-laden drinks like pop are probably the single biggest culprit. And fruit juice [even when no sugar has been added] is really no better as it is loaded with sugar and is easy to over-consume. Also, both table sugar and high fructose corn syrup contain significant amounts of fructose which, in higher amounts, promotes weight gain and may accelerate an overweight person’s progress toward diabetes.”

Lyon tells the Vancouver Sun that refined, starchy foods — such as food made from white flour — digest rapidly into glucose, which then sends blood sugar up and down like a roller coaster.

“These big swings in blood sugar keep you craving snacks and make it likely that you will overeat. There is an ever-growing body of science that tells us that cutting calories is important to weight loss, but cutting way back on sugar and refined starchy foods is a very important strategy for long-term weight management.”


School food has become a social justice issue for our time because some kids get better eating opportunities than others.

This article in The Bay Citizen explores the the diversity in school meals, not just in terms of food quality but how school food service operations are influenced by the food cultures in which the students grow up.

In low-income areas, for instance, kids resist vegetables because vegetables are not on the menu at home. They come from neighborhoods where the only place to buy food is a convenience store.

“We have a serious problem in West Oakland,” said Jennifer LeBarre, director of the Oakland school district’s nutrition service. “Liquor stores are often the only place where you can buy food.”

LeBarr says she's been revamping menus to incorporate less meat, more whole grains and scratch cooking. But she's thwarted by a low budget and the food preferences the kids bring to school. “We taste-tested vegan stroganoff,” she said, “and students liked it. But then when we put it on the menu it was so disliked.”

Changing menus isn't enough. Schools need to do so much more to coach kids--and maybe even their parents--in better eating habits.


Finally, the Chicago Tribune this week profiled what it called a "miracle worker" chef who's creating outstanding school meals kids love for $3 or less.

Chef Paul Boundas says he serves his scratch-cooked meals to about 4,500 private school students — including about 300 at Holy Trinity High School — every day for even less than the standard federal reimbursement rate of $2.72.

Harvard's David Eisenberg came to Chicago this year to learn about Boundas' program and became intrigued by its potential to improve public health. "We'd like to see if it is reproducible in other inner-city schools for other children," said Eisenberg, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School.

Eisenberg said he hopes to find a framework to assess the program's long-term effects "in terms of their physiology, weight, obesity rates, eating habits outside school and education potential over the next several years. … If it impacts obesity, then we have a noble cause to champion."

The Trib essentially asks why Boundas, a professional chef, can pull this off while kids in Chicago's public schools are still eating standard school fare provided by Chartwells, the giant food service company.

Private schools, even if they don't necessarily spending more on food, sometimes will pay extra for the staff required to prepare better meals. I profiled just such a school here in the District of Columbia--Washington Jesuit Academy--where chefs from the catering arm of the non-profit D.C. Central Kitchen executed a similar miracle in the cafeteria.

In public schools, the food service operations are typically run by dietitians, not trained culinary professionals. And if food service management companies like Chartwells are involved, a percentage of funds are being taken off the plate in the form of profits.

There are exceptions in the public realm. Consider Berkley and Boulder, where Anne Cooper brought highly trained restaurant chefs to oversee food production. The results in food quality are obvious.

What may come as a surprise to some is that private schools are eligible to participate in the federally-subsidized meals program and many do.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Kids Make Fried Calamari

Kids eat a heap of squid--and beg for more

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

This may have been our most fun food appreciation class ever--frying squid for tapas.

The kids were a bit squeamish about the raw squid at first. But I urged them to touch it. Picking up the squid in their hands, they soon discovered how thrilling slimy, squishy seafood can be. Pretty soon they were holding the tentacles up in the air and wearing the squid bodies on the fingers. It's great to see kids learning about foods they've never seen before using all of their senses. Squid definitely fits the description of "strange" food for most children, although most of them knew what fried calamari meant.

After putting their inhibitions aside, they were soon cutting the squid into rings for the fryer. I chose my own, extremely simple method: dredging the squid in corn starch seasoned with salt. It's traditional to dip the squid in egg, then flour, to create a batter. But I like the cleaner looks and taste of squid fried my way. Sometimes I will dip the squid in well-beaten egg white first. That results in a very light, crispy coating--better, I think, than the Arthur Treacher's treatment.

Suddenly it's fun to play with squid

I purchased these squid already cleaned at Whole Foods and explained to the kids how these are one form of sustainable seafood, since squid reproduce rapidly and proliferate in the world's oceans. Fisher closer to the top of the food chain--tuna and swordfish, for instance--are much more fragile, ecologically speaking, since they take so much longer to mature. So for the time being, at least, it's still safe to eat squid--and small oily fish such as sardines--with a clear conscience.

We mix the corn starch and salt in a bowl. After dredging the rings and tentacles from one or two squid, we place them in a sieve and shake the excess corn starch back into the bowl. Then then squid are eased into our home-style deep-fat fryer, the oil at 360 degrees F.

I keep the fryer on a counter far away from the children. They aren't allowed to go near it, for obvious reasons. The squid will bubble and hiss at first. Let them cook about 1 1/2 or 2 minutes, until they are crispy. Don't wait for them to brown, unless you've used a batter with flour. These calamari stay pretty white.

And they disappear fast.

Friday, March 18, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Cranberry Muffin & Tater Tots

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

The lunch ladies at my daughter's school are making muffins from scratch on Tuesdays. That's a whole lot better than serving them Otis Spunkmeyer muffins heated in their plastic wrappers, no?

But really. Tater tots with muffins? Hello! Kids just don't need all this starch--and a sugary juice to wash it down.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

What's for Lunch: Chicken Sandwich

By Ed Bruske
aka The slow Cook

I tried to interest daughter in this chicken sandwich when I noticed it on the Chartwells menu website. But she was having none of it.

"Those chicken patties aren't any good," she said. "They're dry."

But this was no chicken patty, but a piece of seasoned chicken breast. It thought it was great.

Here's a view of the chicken under the hood.

On the side was what Chartwells called an "ancho chili sauce." Typically, the kids don't know what to do with the sandwich dressings. But I do. I'm building my sandwich the way it was intended with the lettuce and tomato over the chicken and the chili sauce on the bun.

Here's a side view. You can see how thick the breast was--and moist.
Those carrots and green beans did get more than usual interest from the kids. They usually barely touch the vegetables on their trays. But I think the carrots added some interest. The Chartwells menu called for a "garlic and herb vegetable medley with squash, carrots and green beans." I didn't see any squash, but the carrots and green beans were good enough for me.
What the kids really wanted was that plastic cup of canned peaches.
Altogether, I thought this was a terrific lunch--even if my daughter didn't.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Lunch from Homes: Lunchables Pizza

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

It took a mad genius to invent Lunachables. Kids love them. They are filled with nothing but stuff that kids adore. Pizza is far and away the favorite food of kids in the cafeteria. This build-your-own version just adds all kinds of exciting possibilities.

Plus, you can see it's not just pizza inside the box, but cookies and Kool-Aid. I suppose this is okay, since the crust, according to Oscar Meyer, is made with eight grams of "whole grain," although the ingredient list--a mile long--merely describes "enriched wheat flour."

Look at all the stuff in here. For some reason, in addition to the bottle of water, there's a tube of "Kool-Aid Tropical Punch Single." I suppose that's for extra sweetness, since the first ingredient listed is sugar. In fact, this meal contains 25 grams of sugar, or about six teaspoons.

But look what fun. First, you get to smear a packet of tomato sauce over the crust.

Then you sprinkle on the cheese,

Finally, add some pepperoni.

You don't need any utensils. It eats just like a regular pizza. Except it's not hot.

Pretty, cool, huh?
Who says meals from home aren't as good as the stuff they serve in the cafeteria?

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Investigation Reveals How Food Industry Rebates Thwart Healthy School Meals

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Food manufacturers catch plenty of grief over the way they market junk food to kids. But the public is entirely unaware of the hundreds of millions of dollars those same corporations spend influencing the choice of foods served to children in schools by paying food service companies off-the-book rebates--sometimes referred to as kickbacks--to push their brand of industrial processed goods on unwitting school districts.

Giving a rare glimpse into the highly secretive rebate system, assistant New York State Attorney General John F. Carroll last week described in detail his unprecedented investigation of the influence rebates wield in the world of food service companies like Sodexo, Chartwells and Aramark. As a result of that investigation, Sodexo, the French-owned food service giant, last year agreed to pay New York $20 million to settle claims it had improperly withheld rebates it was supposed to turn over to its school district clients.

Speaking to a meeting of the School Nutrition Association in Washington, D.C., Carroll said what he uncovered about Sodexo was just the tip of the iceberg. His investigation continues, and he expects more claims to be brought against other food service providers over rebates that not only create "an inherent conflict of interest" in the choice of foods children are served at school, but also discourage the use of locally produced goods from smaller suppliers, including local farmers.

Rebates, Carroll said, raise the potential for abuse in schools across the country. Officials from numerous states, he said, have contacted him since the Sodexo settlement was announced. Here in the District of Columbia, I wondered why children as young as five routinely were being fed sugary brand-name cereal such as Kellogg's Apple Jacks for breakfast along with Pop-Tarts, Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins. From documents obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, I reported last year that the food service provider for D.C. schools--Chartwells--had claimed at least $1 million in rebates from food suppliers.

According to Carroll, companies such as Sodexo, Chartwells and Aramark go to great lengths to ensure that the products they use come from manufacturers who will write them checks for goods they purchase in large volumes, money that doesn't appear on any invoice. These "off-invoice" rebate checks, based on billions of dollars worth of purchases, "are extremely valuable because rebate dollars are the cheapest to earn," Carroll said ,and help explain why Tyson chicken nuggets and Schwan frozen pizza proliferate in thousands of school cafeterias nationwide.

In the case of Chartwells, for instance, purchases are arranged through a branch of its parent company--the $21 billion British behemoth Compass Group. Foodbuy, as the sister company is known, makes more than $5 billion worth of purchases every year for a host of Compass Group subsidiaries, employing dozens of people to focus on negotiating contracts with manufacturers and tracking the rebates that are due.

On some products, rebates amount to as little as five percent of the purchase price. But on others, rebates are extremely lucrative--as much as 50 percent of the cost of the product itself. Rebates act as a potent tool for imprinting popular brands of processed foods in the minds of children at a young age in a place where they eat every day: the school cafeteria.

Carroll said food service companies typically have strict rules for how local managers make purchases for school districts, limiting them to buying from a short list of large, industrial purveyors who give rebates, and punishing those who stray from the company line. Such rules prevent purchases from smaller, more local manufacturers who do not have the financial wherewithal to pay rebates. In particular, they discourage schools that employ food service management companies from serving children local produce.

"Site managers are evaluated based on compliance--the degree that they adhere to purchasing from the company's specific list of vendors," Carroll said.

In my own reporting, I heard from Rick Hughes, a longtime Sodexo manager who now heads food services for Colorado Springs School District 11. “We were rewarded for purchasing specific products,” Hughes told me. "There’s big money tied up in big company food and agribusiness. There’s not a whole lot of money tied up in fresh vegetables and fruits. So just follow the money. That’s what’s being given to kids.”

Carroll said conflicts occur not just in food purchases. He described one case where a site manager was prevented from replacing disposable paper plates with reusable plastic food service gear because the move would of course mean fewer purchases of paper plates, resulting in a cut in rebate payments from the manufacturer. In another case, he said a local produce wholesaler raised the prices he charged schools so he could pay a rebate to the food service company.

Carroll's investigation and his insights into rebate practices are extremely valuable because this is one area the food industry would rather the public not know about. Manufacturers and food service companies alike are loathe to give details into how corporate greed greases the wheels of the U.S. food economy, resulting in industrially processed convenience foods predominating on kids' cafeteria trays. Information about rebates appears on no annual report, or in any other public documents.

According to Carroll, rebating is rampant across all lines of the food economy, but did not begin to insinuate itself into schools until around 2000. The USDA had allowed schools to decide whether they would require their hired food service companies to declare the rebates. That changed in 2007. Now, schools that enter into "cost-reimbursable" contracts with food service companies--contracts that provide the company a fixed management fee and pay for invoiced purchases--must contain a provision requiring the companies to return to the schools any rebates they collect.

New York State has had such a rule on its books since 2003. Schools there are required to use a prototype contract provided by the state education agency.

In districts where schools pay their food service provider a flat rate for meals, rebates represent corporate profit that goes to shareholders instead of into the food kids are being served. The schools involved may have no idea how they are being short-changed by rebates. Carroll said rebates in school food contracts typically amount to 10 percent to 15 percent of total purchases. Here in D.C., the rebates Chartwells declared amounted to only 5 percent of purchases for that period.

Carroll said school officials in the cases he has investigated "had only very limited understanding and knowledge of what in fact the rebates were," and, as a result, "they were not in a position to come to the bargaining table with food service companies on an equal footing."

Under the federal False Claims Act, food service companies are liable for treble damages in cases where they improperly withhold rebates from government clients. Whistleblowers are generously rewarded. The Sodexo case, for instance, was sparked by two former employees who were disciplined after they complained about the company's rebate practices. They were awarded more than $3 million as part of the $20 million settlement with New York.

Sodexo, Carroll said, cooperated in the investigation and later set up an 800 number that school officials could call for information about rebates. But Carroll told the school nutrition group that food service personnel should not be shy about reporting abuses.

Carroll urged them to "go back to your schools and offices and kitchens and...exert all the influence that you have to eliminate this practice of rebating because in my opinion it is not good business and it does not adhere to the values of this industry."

Monday, March 14, 2011

What's for Lunch: Pizza!

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Pizza is still kids' favorite food at school. Our daughter, seen here, doesn't care for most of the cafeteria fare at her elementary school. But her eyes lit up when we checked the Chartwells menu site and learned that lunch would be pizza!


It was an extra long slice. I took a couple of bites and found it to be pretty gummy. What do you expect from a frozen pizza re-heated for a couple of hundred kids? It didn't taste terrible. It was just very bready.

But my daughter loved it. She's had so many great pizzas in her life--many of them we made ourselves--I wonder if she isn't tasting the memory of pizza more than what was actually served.

This is what the complete meal looked like. As if there wasn't enough starch already in the pizza, they added more with the potato wedges. The USDA has proposed that kids get a maximum two servings per week--or one cup total--of starchy vegetables like potatoes in the federally-subsidized school meals program.

Potatoes happen to be kids' second-favorite food at school--right after pizza. So this meal was guaranteed to hit them right where it counts. But enjoy those potatoes while you can. They'll soon be replaced with sweet potatoes or other orange vegetables--or dark green vegetables.

My daughter begged me to get another tray of food so she could have more potato wedges. Fat chance.

The kids also dove into the pineapple cup. They like fruit--the sweeter the better. But not so much the green beans. These were advertised as "seasoned green beans," which translated as canned green beans tossed with "butter substitute" and garlic. Needless to say, the kids didn't touch them.

Here was the alternate cold meal: salad with chicken. A few of the kids chose this. One fifth-grade girl told me she just likes salad.

Good for her.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

This Week in School Food News

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

For all the ink they've spilled on Michelle Obama and her fight against childhood obesity, the national news media have been conspicuously absent from efforts to expose the insidious role of corporate money in school cafeterias and how a secret system of industry rebates rules over the food kids eat at school.

Last year I reported that Chartwells, the giant food service company, a subsidiary of the even bigger, $21 billion Compass Group, had claimed $1 million in rebates from its food suppliers in the course of serving meals to children in the nation's capitol.

Rebates are money manufacturers pay to providers like Chartwells as an incentive to purchase large volumes of product. They help explain why schools serve Kellogg's Apple Jacks for breakfast, along with Pop-Tarts and Giant Goldfish Grahams and Otis Spunkmeyer muffins, and why Tyson's chicken nuggets and Schwann frozen pizzas show up on cafeteria trays so frequently for lunch.

Shortly after I posted my reports, Sodexo, another food service giant, agreed to pay a $20 million settlement in New York over rebates it received and failed to pass on to its school district clients, as required by law.

On Tuesday, John F. Carroll, the New York deputy attorney general who presides over that state's ongoing investigation of rebates, told members of the School Nutrition Association why he thinks rebates create an inherent conflict of interest when it comes to deciding what sorts of food schools should feed children.

At play are billions of corporate dollars that wash over the nation's school meals program in an ultra-secret system of corporate deal making, too often at the expense of unwitting lunch ladies. You can watch the video here.


In case you thought corporate influence over the food kids eat couldn't get any worse, here's a development in Michigan worth watching: a group of ultra-conservative Republican state legislators has proposed a bill that would require schools to turn over cafeteria operations to the likes of Chartwells, Sodexo and Aramark.

The bill would also require schools to privatize their janitorial operations and bus fleets--essentially anything not directly related to teaching reading and math, though perhaps privatizing teaching is next on their agenda.

Republicans control both branches of the state legislature as well as the governor's mansion. It's still unclear whether this particular bill has the blessing of the GOP leadership. Its stated purpose is to control costs in the public sector (where have we heard that before?). Ironically, hiring a corporate food service management company with shareholders to pay can prove much more expensive for schools that currently operate their cafeterias in-house.

As school officials in D.C. are learning, keeping Chartwells as the primary provider under a cost-reimbursable contract is much costlier than hiring food contractors at a flat rate. Just think what D.C. schools could do if they got their act together and just made the food themselves, rather than paying a for-profit company to do it.


Corporations of all kinds have their hands in feeding children--more so, apparently, than many parents. And they will fight to the death any well-meaning efforts to reduce that influence.

Here's a case in point: the famous battles to impose special taxes on sodas, which deliver the sugar so intimately linked with an epidemic of childhood obesity and chronic health problems such as diabetes, hypertension and coronary artery disease.

A recent report out of New York shows that the American Beverage Association, which vehemently opposed ex-Gov. David Paterson's proposed tax on sugary sodas, was by far the state's most active interest group last year, spending $12.9 million to sway legislators.

Paterson proposed the penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks as a way to provide the state with much-needed revenue and to curb the unhealthy drinking habits of children.

Coming in a distant second among lobbying spenders was the state's primary teachers union--New York State United Teachers--with $6.4 million, according to the Public Interest Research Group.


Corporations, when they aren't looking for new ways to influence the foods kids choose--and fight any government efforts to regulate the $10 billion they spend on advertising to children every year--sometimes throw a few bucks into the pot to burnish their image.

The latest example is Kellogg, which has launched a campaign to feed needy children in exchange for photographs of breakfast sent in by the public.

The New York Times reports that each breakfast photo a user uploads to the Web site, the Kellogg Company will donate a breakfast to a child who might otherwise go without. The project is part of a national advertising campaign for Kellogg called Share Your Breakfast, which will support National Breakfast Day on Tuesday.

The campaign is the largest integrated marketing effort for Kellogg, including broadcast, print, digital and social media, said Doug VanDeVelde, the senior vice president for marketing and innovation at the Kellogg Company.

“We find there’s a lot of people who don’t have access to breakfast,” Mr. VanDeVelde said. “We just felt like as the breakfast leader, we should do something about that.”

To that end, Kellogg worked with the national nonprofit volunteer organization Action for Healthy Kids with the goal of donating a million breakfasts to underserved children for the 2011-12 school year.

Schools where at least 50 percent of the students are eligible for free and reduced-price meals will receive the breakfasts. The Kellogg Company will donate up to $200,000 toward the effort.

As of a week ago, more than 800 photos of breakfasts had been uploaded. About half the photos featured Kellogg products, while others were more daring inventions like a plate of fried eggs flanked by blueberries, accompanied by a few leaves of baby spinach surrounded by toast slathered with peanut butter and topped with banana slices.


First lady Michelle Obama recently has taken some heat from the likes of Sarah Palin and other conservatives who don't like the federal government telling people what they should or shouldn't eat. That, they say, is a perfect example of the "nanny state" at work. Kids should be able to choose cup cakes for lunch, rather than broccoli, if they want.

With a raging obesity epidemic already costing the country some $300 billion in weight-related medical treatment and lost productivity, others disagree with that assessment. In fact, a new poll finds that Americans by a margin of 57 percent to 39 percent margin believe that government should have a role in solving the obesity problem.

Blacks and Hispanics concur by overwhelming margins--74 percent and 83 percent, respectively.

Independents side with the mainstream. Fifty-seven percent of them also think government should be fighting obesity.

Who are these people who think government should stay out of the obesity conversation? That would be Republicans--57 percent--and especially conservative Republicans, 61 percent of whom side with Sarah Palin.

Voters who identify themselves as Tea Party members oppose government involvement by a margin of 65 percent.

The latest national survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press was conducted Feb. 22-March 1 among 1,504 adults.

While Pew finds a majority of Americans supporting the government playing a significant role in reducing obesity among children, the public does not view the fight against obesity as a major policy priority for the president and Congress.

In Pew Research’s annual policy priorities poll in January, just 19% rated dealing with obesity in this country as a top priority, the lowest among 22 items tested; nearly as many (14%) said it should not be done at all.


Finally, experienced parents know well enough not to take their kids into the cereal aisle at the supermarket. Here's why: A new study published in the Journal of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine finds that children prefer the taste of cereal when the packaging features popular cartoon characters.

Conducted by researchers at the University of Pennsylvania, the results are in line with recent research from Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, which also found that children were more likely to enjoy the taste of foods when they were branded with cartoon characters.

In this latest research, 80 children aged four to six were shown boxes of cereal branded equally as either ‘Healthy Bits’ or ‘Sugar Bits’, and half of each featured media characters. The children were asked to rate the taste of the cereal on a smiley face scale of one to five after sampling the cereal.

“Almost all children liked the cereal, but those who saw a popular media character on the box reported liking the cereal more than those who viewed a box without a character on it,” the researchers found.

In addition, children who were presented with the cereal branded as ‘Healthy Bits’ reported liking it more than those who were presented with the cereal named ‘Sugar Bits’. Children who were shown a box branded ‘Sugar Bits’ without cartoon characters reported liking the cereal significantly less than those in the other three groups. And there was no significant difference between children’s liking of the ‘Healthy Bits’ cereal whether or not the packaging featured a cartoon character.

“The results of this experiment provide evidence that the use of popular characters on food products affects children’s assessment of taste,” the authors wrote. “Messages encouraging healthy eating may resonate with young children, but the presence of licensed characters on packaging potentially overrides children’s assessments of nutritional merit.”

Saturday, March 12, 2011

Kids Make Roasted Vegetable Canapes (Tapas!)

Peeling roasted pepper for tapas

By Ed Bruske

aka The Slow Cook

Every Mediterranean culture seems to have some sort of treatment combining onion, eggplant and bell pepper. In France it's called ratatouille. Others call it tapenade. In Spain, they serve a tapas dish made of roasted vegetables tossed with olive oil, thyme and parsley. I found a recipe calling for this aromatic mix to be spooned over slices of raw zucchini. What could possibly be simpler, tastier or more healthful?

Making tapas is so much fun, I'm thinking our food appreciation classes might just linger here in Spain on our virtual world culinary tour. In fact, I'm beginning to get the idea that our spring parents dinner might just consist of a tapas bar. If that's the case, we're going to need a few more weeks to perfect our tapas making skills. There are so many different possibilities to choose from. My wife and I had such a great time recently in Barcelona exploring the local tapas bars. I think we can have fun with it in our cooking classes.

This dish couldn't be much simpler, but it does require quite a bit of vegetable prep work--the perfect thing to keep a group of kids busy. They love messing around with vegetable peelers and chopping things with real knives. This recipe also involves peeling the skin off roasted bell peppers, something many of them had never experienced before.

To make a generous, family-sized portion of these canapes, peel 1/2 of a small eggplant and cut it into 1/2-inch slices. Place these on a baking sheet lined with parchment paper. Follow with 1/2 red bell pepper, 1/2 green bell pepper and 1 medium onion, peeled, cut in half lengthwise, then sliced into 1/2-inch half-moons. Place in a 350-degree oven and roast about 60 minutes, or until the peppers are blistered, the onion is beginning to brown around the edges and the eggplant are cooked through.

Remove the vegetables from the oven and set them aside to cool. Meanwhile, finely chop a small fistful of parsley leaves and remove the leaves from several stems of fresh thyme (or use about 1/4 teaspoon dried thyme).

When the vegetables are cool enough to handle, chop them well, but not too fine. Place them in a bowl and stir in the parsley and thyme. Squeeze in about 1 tablespoon juice from a fresh lemon, then season with just enough extra-virgin olive oil to coat everything, some salt and freshly ground black pepper. Stir well to mix.

Here's one way to get kids to eat vegetables

To serve, cut a Zucchini on an angle into slices about 1/4-inch thick--perhaps a bit thinner, but thick enough to hold the roasted vegetables without collapsing. Then spoon the vegetables onto the zucchini slices and present them on a decorative platter.

This is one way to get kids to eat their vegetables. I was surprised how much they liked it. You just never know what kids will go for. But I think these tapas are too beautiful to resist. In fact, in our "open enrollment" class where we get kids of all ages--and quite a large number of them--what we did was line the kids line up behind the bowl of vegetables, gave them a spoon and the sliced zucchini and let them make their own tapas. I've never seen such a patient, determined and focused group of kids around food. Most of them took two.

Friday, March 11, 2011

What's for Lunch: Chicken Florentine?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Here's another example of some of the clever new options we're seeing on the menu in D.C. schools this year. Someone thought to take a piece of flat bread and cover it with "chicken Florentine."

Where I come from, "chicken Florentine" means sauteed chicken tossed with spinach and a wine-infused cream sauce. This was a bit more like a pizza (kids love pizza, as we know). I tried it and did not taste any cream or wine, although it was perfectly palatable--more a mouthful of spinach with a bit of onion and some scattered pieces of diced chicken, all topped with some melted cheese.

The kids, on the other hand, looked at it and were completely intimidated by all that spinach.

This looked like a repeat of the homemade spinach lasagna experience we've seen before, where kids assiduously work their way around the spinach to get at the pasta and the cheese. In the case of this chicken Florentine, I was surprised to see that most of the kids in the lunch room never touched it.

Just to make sure, I took a walk around the lunch room and, sure enough, the entree in most cases was entirely uneaten. Some of the children--we're talking elementary school kids in the upper grades--were tentatively nibbling on the flat bread around the edges. Others, like this girl here, were a bit more bold. They had scraped all the spinach off the flat bread, then attacked the bread and picked through the green matter to get at the cheese and chicken bits.

On the tray also were some carrot sticks tossed in ranch dressing that were definitely more popular. Many of the kids also had sampled the peas. But just a note here on that: peas are one of those "starchy vegetables," along with potatoes, corn and lima beans, that the USDA proposes in new meal guidelines to sharply limit in the future.

The federal government would like to serve kids much bigger portions of things they don't normally like--vegetables and whole grains--and take away things kids really love, like potatoes (especially French fries). Sound like a winning formula?

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Vilsack to Lunch Ladies: I Feel Your Pain

Here's some Tom Vilsack trivia I wasn't aware of: The USDA secretary's adoptive mother was a raging alcoholic and prescription drug abuser who, Vilsack says, spent most of her time "in the attic, dealing with her demons."

But Vilsack did have one connection to his mother: somehow she always found a way to make him a brown-bag lunch to take to school--usually a sandwich and a piece of fruit. To some 800 school food professionals and industry representatives, assembled in Washington for a legislative conference, Vilsack said he considers the act of feeding children an endeavor with lifelong consequences.

School food, Vilsack said, is now a matter of national security--vital to maintaining the country's competitive position in the world, and even its military. Lunch ladies can have a lasting impact on the kids they serve--and, by extension, the welfare of the nation.

"Kids need to be well educated, and they can't be well educated unless they are well fed," he said.

Vilsack spoke to members of the School Nutrition Association on Wednesday, along with a panel of officials from the USDA who took questions. School food service directors feel set upon by federal lawmakers and others who would like to dictate the terms for how they do their jobs.

Lately, they have particular issues with a new law that requires them to raise prices, potentially suppressing participation in their meal programs, and sets rules for tons more vegetables, whole grains and foods with dramatically less salt--all of which the federal government declines to pay for other than the measly six cents recently approved by Congress.

Lunch ladies are convinced that vast quantities of those vegetables and whole grains, while busting their banks, will simply end up in the trash, uneaten. A joke currently making the rounds among school food service directors is "out in 10," meaning, they wish they could retire sometime within the next 10 years, before they are required to serve meals with less than half the current salt, food they are convinced children will reject.

The USDA says it has no idea how schools or food service manufacturers will meet the reduced-salt target. But the new guidelines would require schools to match the Dietary Guidelines for Americans, which hold that Americans consume far too much sodium, mainly from processed foods.

"I feel your pain," Vilsack told the assembled dietitians, cooks and other school food professionals. "I understand what happens when someone wants to impose on you a set of requirements that just don't fit in the real world."

If what I see visiting my daughter's cafeteria here in the District of Columbia is any indication, they are probably right about "healthy" foods being dumped in lunch room trash cans. One thing that has impressed me most after covering school food issues on a daily basis for more than a year now--more, I suppose, than almost any other journalist in the country--is the enormous gulf between policy making on the national level, and what actually takes place in school cafeterias.

It is certainly a fact that school food service operations, giant food service management companies, and their suppliers in the corporate food industry, have found ingenious ways to translate well-meaning government guidelines into processed junk masquerading as "healthy" school meals.

But it is also true that political leaders and well-intentioned advocates too often are far removed from the daily fray with their policy pronouncements. It's a puzzle why they get so much ink in the press, while the views of our long-suffering cafeteria workers get so little. In the end, the only thing that really matters is not the latest thinking of some pinstriped pol on Capitol Hill, but the food that is actually presented on some 32 million cafeteria trays every day--and whether children actually eat it.

In that sense, the national school meals program, for all its successes, remains a quintessential government endeavor, layered with rules, guidelines, paperwork and accountability requirements. It could hardly be less kid-friendly. Listening to the plaintive questions from so many food workers with first-hand, daily experience in the field, I wonder if it isn't time to re-imagine completely how we feed children in school every day.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

What's for Breakfast: Waffles? Pancakes?

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Kids got a choice of waffles or pancakes on this particular morning. In fact, unless my eyes deceived, it looked like there were two varieties of pancakes on display: whole wheat and regular.

These are prepared convenience foods that arrive at the school frozen and are then warmed in a steamer. The waffles typically are a little too crunchy for my taste.

The schools used to serve pancakes and waffles with high-fructose corn syrup masquerading as maple syrup. Now they get a pool of yogurt on their waffle--or to dip their pancake in, as the case might be.

Notice the plain milk. D.C. public schools no longer serve flavored milk.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Putting the Brakes on Raising Lunch Prices

By Ed Bruske
aka The Slow Cook

Hundreds of school food service directors from around the country will be fanning out on Capitol Hill today to lobby their Congressman. What's at the top of their legislative agenda? Stopping implementation of Section 205 of the recently approved child nutrition re-authorization.

That's the provision that would require most of the country's 100,000 schools to start raising the lunch price they charge children who don't qualify as low-income.

The School Nutrition Association, which represents some 53,000 food service workers, is asking Congress to amend the new law to require pilot testing of the price hike mandate before applying it to all schools.

School officials fear that raising prices is bound to cause many paying students to abandon the program, upsetting the cafeteria business model, perhaps costing kitchen jobs, and turning school lunch into a welfare program that stigmatizes truly needy children who depend on it for food.

Congress billed Section 205 as restoring equity to school lunch pricing. Currently, most schools charge paying students less than what the government deems the full cost of making a lunch, currently $2.72. Here in the District of Columbia, for instance, lunch only costs $1.50, and that's hardly uncommon. The same price holds in New York City as well.

Some advocates see this as unfair, since it means poor children effectively are supporting kids who otherwise are considered financially able to pay full price.

The legislation approved in December would require schools to raise their prices annually by an amount equal to the rate of inflation plus two percent. As I described in a post yesterday, most schools would take more than 10 years to catch up their prices. Nearly half would take more than 20 years.

Not all food service directors favor blocking the price hikes. As I heard yesterday at the SNA's legislative conference, some see Section 205 as a convenient way to work around school boards that are reluctant to raise prices when schools need the extra revenue.

But others fear that targeting middle-class students will cause many of them--especially those on the margins--to abandon the government-sponsored hot lunch, turning it into a welfare program and stigmatizing children who truly need the food.

In fact, federal subsidies for school lunch originally were intended to support all children equally, regardless of income. Those subsidies, known as "Section 4" funds, continue to provide schools with 26 cents from the federal government for every lunch purchased by students who pay full price.

It was only later that Congress agreed to provide extra money so that needy children could eat school lunch for free, or at a reduced price. The SNA argues that federal support should be viewed as benefiting the entire program, and not be parsed to pit one income group against another.

The pricing issue is likely to be a one of the most important challenges school meal programs going forward, one that received very lilttle attention during the legislative process. The SNA believes a simple appropriation amendment could put Section 205 on hold--at least temporarily.

But food service directors also have their eye on new meal standards working their way through the USDA. As they heard from nutrition experts yesterday, nobody yet knows how they will manage to reduce the salt in food by half and still produce meals anyone would actually want to eat.